Thursday (December 9, 2021)

“We want you to know about the grace of god which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia. For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality…”  2 Corinthians 8:1-2

While I was serving as synod bishop I was frequently asked by people around the synod, “Are you happy?”  The usual follow-up question was, “What do you do for fun?”  They are simple enough questions, and always carried the best intentions for my well-being.  But when you are serving in a ministry like that of a bishop, it is not so easy to answer.  And the question always triggered another question in my heart; “What in the world is happiness, anyway?”

It is a very important question in a society where the three documented, inalienable, God-given rights, to which everyone is entitled, are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  What exactly is it that you are pursuing when you pursue happiness?

I suppose there are as many answers to a question like this as there are people answering it: wealth, comfort, health, love, peace, fulfillment…  But I think the reason I had trouble answering the question was that, when I look around at all the ways I see people pursuing happiness, what I mostly see is people looking for some way to escape from their pain and sadness… or perhaps to escape from feelings of emptiness and longing.  And I am not convinced that escape is exactly the thing we should be pursuing.

So, I am drawn to St. Paul’s unusual statement to the Corinthian Christians that mixes affliction, abundance, poverty, and overflowing wealth all together… almost as if they belong together.

I love the way this odd little formulation points to the truth that “happiness” is not precisely the same as “joy.”  Because if the pursuit of happiness is a strategy for escaping sadness, then JOY, by contrast, is a gift of grace that comes to us whenever our tears are mingled with God’s hope.  You cannot pursue it, but when it comes to you, it changes you forever!

We are in a season, right now, filled with “glad tidings of great joy,”.  So, it is important, I think, to remember that Jesus was not born into this world to provide a quick exit from whatever we find unpleasant.  On Christmas, God found a way into the very messy and uncomfortable real life that so many are looking for some way out of.  And in the mingling of our tears with the hope radiating from this poor, unremarkable baby, there is just the possibility of joy to the world.

Stir up your power, O God, and come. In our moments of discouragement or sadness, mingle your inexhaustible hope with our human tears and transform them into the beginning of a new wealth of joy.  Amen.